TSW Chapter 2.2

 

New Home in the Country

Excerpt from “The Wide, Wide World” 1850

By Susan Warner

 

     The morning sun was shining full and strong in Ellen’s eyes when she awoke. Bewildered at the strangeness of everything around her, she raised herself on her elbow, and took a long look at her new home. It could not help but seem cheerful. The bright beams of the sunlight streaming in through the windows lighted on the wall and the old wainscoting, and paintless and rough as they were, Nature’s own gilding more than made amends for their want of comeliness. Still Ellen was not much pleased with the results of her survey. The room, was good-sized, and perfectly neat and clean. It had two large windows opening to the east, through which, morning by morning, the sun looked in, that was another blessing. But the floor was without the sign of a carpet, and the bare boards looked to Ellen very comfortless. The hard finished walls were not very smooth nor particularly white. The doors and woodwork, though very neat, and even carved with some attempt at ornament, had never known the touch of paint, and had grown in the course of years to be of a light brown color. The room was very bare of furniture, too. A dressing-table, pier-table, or what-not, stood between the windows, but it was only a half circular top of pine board sot upon three very long, bare-looking legs -- altogether of a most awkward and unhappy appearance, Ellen thought, and quite too high for her to use with any comfort. No glass hung over it, nor anywhere else. On the north side of the room was a fireplace, against the opposite wall stood Ellen’s trunk and two chairs. That was all, except the cot bed she was lying on, and which had its place opposite the windows. The coverlid of that came in for a share of her displeasure, being of home-made white and blue worsted mixed with cotton exceedingly thick and heavy.

     “I wonder what sort of a blanket is under it,” said Ellen, “if I can ever get it off to see! Pretty good, but the sheets are cotton: and so is the pillow case.”

     She was still leaning on-her elbow, looking around her with a rather discontented face, when some door opened-downstairs, a great noise of hissing and spluttering came to her ears, and presently there stole to her nostrils a steaming odor of something very savory from the kitchen. It said as plainly as any dressing-bell that she had better get up. So up she jumped, and set about the business of dressing with great alacrity. Where was the distress of last night? Gone -- with the darkness. She had slept well, the bracing atmosphere had restored strength and spirits, and the bright morning light made it impossible to be dull or down-hearted, in spite of the new cause she thought she had found. She went on quickly with the business of the toilet, but when it came to the washing, she suddenly discovered that there were no conveniences for it in her room -- no sign of pitcher or basin, or stand to hold them. Ellen was slightly dismayed, but presently recollected her arrival had not been looked for so soon, and probably the preparations for it had not been completed. So she finished dressing, and then set out to find her way to the kitchen. On opening the door, there was a little landing-place from which the stairs descended just in front of her and at the left hand another door, which she supposed must lead to her aunt’s room. At the foot of the stairs Ellen found herself in a large square room or hall, for one of its doors, on the east, opened to the outer air, and was in fact the front door of the house. Another Ellen tried on the south side, it would not open. A third, under the stairs, admitted her to the kitchen.

     The noise of hissing and spluttering now became quite violent, and the smell of cooking, to Ellen’s fancy, rather too strong to be pleasant. Before a good fire stood Miss Fortune holding the end of a very long iron handle, by which she was kept in communication with a flat vessel sitting on the fire, in which Ellen soon discovered all this noisy and odorous cooking was going on. A tall tin coffee-pot stood on some coals in the corner of the fireplace, and another little iron vessel in front also claimed a share of Miss-Fortune’s attention, for she every now and then leaned-forward to give s stir to whatever was in it, making each time quite a spasmodic effort to do so without quitting her hold on the long handle. Ellen drew near and looked on with great curiosity, and not a little appetite, but Miss Fortune was far too busy to give her more than a passing glance. At length the hissing pan was brought to the hearth for some new arrangement of its contents, and Ellen seized the moment of peace and quiet to say, “Good morning, Aunt Fortune.”

     Miss Fortune was crouching by the pan turning her slices of pork. “How do you do this morning?” she answered without looking up.

     Ellen replied that she felt a great deal better.

     “Slept warm, did you?” said Miss Fortune, as she set the pan back on the fire. And Ellen could hardly answer, “Quite warm, ma’am,” when the hissing and spluttering began again as loud as ever.

     “I must wait,” thought Ellen, “till this is over before I say what I want to. I can’t scream out to ask for a basin and towels.”

     In a few minutes the pan was removed from the fire, and Miss Fortune went on to take out the brown slices of nicely fried pork and arrange them in a deep dish, leaving a small quantity of clear fat in the pan. Ellen, who was greatly interested, and observing every step most attentively, settled in her own mind that certainly this would be thrown away, fit for nothing but the pigs. But Miss Fortune didn’t think so, for she darted into some pantry close by, and returning with a cup of cream in her hand, emptied it all into the pork fat. Then she ran into the pantry again for a little round tin box, with a cover full of holes, and shaking this gently over the pan, a fine white shower of flour fell upon the cream, The pan was than replaced on the fire and stirred, and to Ellen’s astonishment the whole changed, as if by magic, to a thick, stiff, white froth. It was not till Miss Fortune was carefully pouring this over the fried slices in the dish that Ellen suddenly recollected that breakfast was ready, and she was not.

     “Aunt Fortune,” she said timidly, “I haven’t washed yet, there’s no basin in my room.”

     Miss Fortune made no answer nor gave any sign of hearing, she went on dishing up breakfast. Ellen waited a few minutes.

     “Will you please, ma’am, to show me where I can wash myself.”

     “Yes,” said Miss Fortune, suddenly standing erect, “you’ll have to go down to the spout.”

     “The spout, ma’am,” said Ellen, “what’s that?”

     You’ll know it when you see it, I guess, answered her aunt, again stooping over her preparations. But in another moment she arose and said, "just open that door there behind you, and go down the stairs and out at the yard and you’ll see where it is, and what it is too.”

     Ellen still lingered, “Would you be as good as to give me a towel ma’am” she said timidly.

     Miss Fortune dashed past her and out of another door, whence she presently returned with a clean towel which she threw over Ellen’s arm, and then went back to her work.

     Opening the door by which she had first seen her aunt enter the night before, Ellen went down a steep flight of steps, and found herself in a lower kitchen, intended for common purposes. It seemed not to be used at all at least there was no fire there, and a cellar-like feeling and smell instead. That was no wonder, for beyond the fireplace on the left hand was the opening to the cellar, which, running under the other part of the house, was at the same level with this kitchen. It had no furniture but a table and. Two chairs. The thick heavy door stood open. Passing out, Ellen looked around her for water, in what shape or form it was to present itself she had no very clear idea. She soon spied, a few yards distant, a little stream of water pouring from the end of a pipe or trough raised about a foot and a half from the ground, and a well-worn path leading to-it, left no doubt of its being “the spout” But when she reached it Ellen was in no small puzzle as to how she should manage. The water was clear and bright, and poured very fast into a shallow wooden trough underneath, whence it ran off into the meadow and disappeared.

     “But what shall I do without a basin,” thought Ellen, “I can’t catch any water in my hands, it runs too fast. If I only could get my face under there -- that would be fine.”

     Very carefully and cautiously she tried it, but the continual sputtering of the water had made the board so slippery that before her face could reach the stream she came very near tumbling headlong, and so taking more of a cold bath than she wished for. So she contented herself with the drops her hands could bring to her face -- a scanty supply, but those drops were deliciously cold and fresh. And afterwards she pleased herself with holding her hands in the running water, till they were red with the cold. On the whole Ellen enjoyed her washing very much. The morning air came playing about her, it’s cool breath was on her cheek with health in its touch. The Early sun was shining on tree, and meadow, and hill, the long shadows stretched over the grass and the very brown out-house looked bright. She thought it was the loveliest place she had ever seen. And that sparkling trickling water was certainly the purest and sweetest she had ever tasted. Where could it come from? It poured from a small trough made of the split trunk of a tree with a little groove or channel two inches wide hollowed out in it, But at the end of one of these troughs, another lapped on, and another at the end of that, and how many there were Ellen could not see, nor where the beginning of them was. Ellen stood gazing and wondering, drinking in the fresh air, hope and spirits rising every minute, when she suddenly recollected breakfast! She hurried in. As she expected her aunt was at the table, but to her surprise, and not at all to her gratification, there was Mr. Van Brunt at the other end of it, eating away, very much at home indeed. In silent dismay Ellen drew her chair to the side of the table.

     “Did you find the spout?” asked Miss Fortune.

     ”Yes, ma’am.”

     ”Well, how do you like it?”

     ”Oh, I like it very much indeed,” said Ellen. “I think it is beautiful.”

     Miss Fortune’s face rather softened at this, and she gave Ellen an abundant supply of all that was on the table. Her journey, the bracing air, and her cool morning wash, all together, had made Ellen very sharp, and she did justice to the breakfast. She thought never was coffee so good as this country coffee, nor anything so excellent as the brown bread and butter, both as sweet as bread and butter could be, neither was any cookery so entirely satisfactory as Miss Fortune’s fried pork and potatoes. Yet her teaspoon was not silver, her knife could not boast of being either sharp or bright, and her fork was certainly made for anything else in the world but comfort and convenience, being of only two prongs, and those so far apart that Ellen had no smell difficulty to carry the potato safely from her plate to her mouth. It mattered nothing, she was now looking on the bright side of things and all this only made her breakfast taste the sweeter.

     Ellen rose from the table when she had finished, and stood a few minutes thoughtfully by the fire.

     “Aunt Fortune,” she said at length timidly, “if you’ve no objection, I should like to go and take a good look all about.”

     “Oh yes,” said Miss Fortune, “go where you like, I’ll give you a week to do what you please with yourself.”

     “Thank you, ma’am,” said Ellen, as she ran off for her bonnet, “a week’s a long time. I suppose” thought she, “I shall go to school at the end of that.”

     Returning quickly with her white bonnet, Ellen opened the heavy kitchen door by which she had entered last night, and went out. She found herself in a kind of long shed. It had very rough walls and floor, and overhead showed the brown beams and rafters, two little windows and a door were on the side. All manner of rubbish lay there, especially at the farther end. There were scattered about and piled up various boxes, boards, farming and garden tools, old pieces of rope and sheepskin, old iron, a cheese press, and what not. Ellen did not stay long to look, but went out to find something pleasanter. A few yards from the shed door was the little gate through which she had stumbled in the dark, and outside of that Ellen stood still awhile. It was a fair, pleasant day, and the country scene she looked upon was very pretty. Ellen thought so. Before her, at a little distance, rose the great gable end of the barn, and a long row of outhouses stretched away from it towards the loft. The ground was strewn thick with chips, and the reason was not hard to find, for a little way off, under an old stunted apple tree, lay a huge log, well chipped on the upper surface, with the axe resting against it, and close by some sticks of wood both chopped and unchopped. To the right the ground descended gently to a beautiful plane meadow, skirted on the hither side by a row of fine apple trees. The smooth green flat tempted Ellen to a run, but first she looked to the left. There was a garden, she guessed, for there was a paling fence which enclosed a pretty large piece of ground: and between the garden and the house a green slope ran down to the spout, That reminded her that she intended making a journey of discovery up the course of the long trough. No time could be better than now, and she ran down the slope.

     The trough was supported at some height from the ground by little heaps of stones placed here and there along its whole course. Not far from the spout it crossed a fence, Ellen must cross it too to gain her object, and how that could be done was a great question, she resolved to try, however. But first she played awhile with the water, which had great charms for her. She dammed up the little channel with her fingers, forcing the water to flow over the-side of the-trough: there was something very pleasant in stopping the supply of the spout, and-seeing the water trickling over where it had no business to go, and she did not heed that some of the drops took her frock in their way. She stooped her lips to the trough and drank of its sweet current, -- only for fun’s sake, for she was not thirsty. Finally, she set out to follow the stream up to its head. But poor Ellen had not gone more than half way towards the fence, when she all at once plunged into the mire. The green grass growing there had looked fair enough but there was running water and black mud under the green grass, she found to her sorrow. Her shoes, her stockings, were full. What was to be done now? The journey of discovery must be given up. She forgot to think about where the water came from, in the more pressing question, “What will Aunt Fortune say?” -- and the quick wish came that she had her mother to go to, However, she got out of the slough, and wiping her shoes as well as she could on the grass, she hastened back to the house.

     The kitchen was all put in order, the hearth swept, the irons at the fire, and Miss Fortune was just pinning her ironing blanket on the table.

    “Well, what’s the matter?” she said, when she saw Ellen’s face, but as her glance reached the floor, her brows darkened. “Mercy on me!” she exclaimed with slow emphasis, “What on earth have you been about? Where have you been?”

     Ellen explained.

     “Well, you have made a figure of yourself! Sit down!” said her aunt shortly, as she thrust a chair down on the hearth before the fire, “I should have thought you’d have wit enough at your age to keep out of the ditch.”

     “I didn’t see any ditch,” said Ellen.

     “No, I suppose not,” said Miss Fortune, who was energetically twitching off Ellen’s shoes and stockings with her forefinger and thumb, “I suppose not! You were staring up at the moon or stars, I suppose.”

     “It all looked green and smooth,” said poor Ellen, “one part just like another, and the first-thing I knew I was up to-my ankles.”

     “What were you there at all for?” said Miss Fortune, shortly enough.

     “I couldn’t see where the water came from, and I wanted to find out.”

     “Well, you’ve found out enough for one day, I hope. Just look at those stockings! Ha’n’t you got never a pair of colored stockings, that you must go poking into the mud with white ones?”

     “No, ma’am.”

     “Do you mean to say you never wore any but white ones at home?”

     “Yes, ma’am, I never had any others.”

     Miss Fortune’s thoughts seemed too much for speech, from the way in which she jumped up and went off without saying anything more. She presently came back with an old pair of grey socks, which she bade Ellen put on as soon as her feet were dry.

     “How many of those white stockings have you?” she said.

     Mamma bought me a half-a-dozen pairs of new ones just before I came away, and I had as many as that of old ones besides.”

     Well, now, go up to your trunk and bring’m all down to me -- every pair of white stockings you have got. There’s a pair of old slippers you can put on till your shoes are dry. ”She said, flinging them to her, ”they aren’t much too big for you.”

     “They’re not much too big for the socks, they’re a grout deal too big for me,” thought Ellen, but she said nothing. She gathered all her stockings together and brought them downstairs, as her aunt had bidden her.

     Now you may run out to the barn to Mr. Van Brunt, you’ll find him there, and tell him I want him to bring me some white maple bark when he comes home to dinner -- white maple bark, do you hear?”

     Away went Ellen, but in a few minutes came back. “I can’t get in,” she said.

     “What’s the matter?”

     “Those great doors are shut, and I can’t open them. I knocked, but nobody-came!”

     “Knock at a barn Door!” said Miss Fortune, “You must go in-at the little cow-house door, at the left, and go round. He’s in the lower born-floor.”

     The barn stood lower than the level of the chip-yard, from which a little bridge led to the great doorway of the second floor. Passing down the range of outhouses, Ellen came to the little door her aunt had spoken of. “But what in the world should I do if there be cows inside there?” she said to herself. She peeped in, the cow-house was perfectly empty, and cautiously and with many a fearful glance to the right and left, lest some terrible horned animal should present itself, Ellen made her way across the cow-house and through the barn-yard, littered thick with straw, wet and dry, to the lower barn-floor. The door of this stood wide open. Ellen looked with wonder and pleasure when she got in. It was an immense room -- the sides showed nodding but hay up to the ceiling, except here and there an enormous upright post, the floor was perfectly clean, only a few locks of hey and grains of wheat scattered upon it, and a pleasant sweet smell was there, Ellen could not tell of what. But no Mr. Van Brunt. She looked about for him, she dragged her disagreeable slippers back and forth over the floor in vain.

     “Hilloa! What’s wanting?” at length cried a rough voice she remembered very well, but where was the speaker? On every side, to every corner, her eyes turned without finding him. She looked up at last. There was the round face of Mr. Van Brunt peering down at her through a large opening or trap-door in the upper floor.

     “Well,” said he, “have you come out here to help me thresh the wheat?”

     Ellen told him what she had come for.

     “White maple bark, well,” said he in his slow way, “I’ll bring it, I wonder what’s in the wind now.”

     So Ellen wondered, as she slowly went back to the house, and yet more, when her aunt set her to tacking her stockings together two by two.

     “What are you going to do with them, Aunt Fortune?” she at last ventured to say.

     “You’ll see when the time comes.”

     “Mayn’t I keep out one pair? said Ellen, who had a vague notion that by some mysterious means her stockings were to be prevented from ever looking white any more.

     “No, just do as I tell you.”

     Mr. Van Brunt came at dinner-time with the white maple bark. It was thrown forthwith into a brass kettle of water, which Miss Fortune had already hung over the fire. Ellen felt sure this had something to do with her stockings, but she could ask no questions, and as soon as dinner was over she went up to her room, it didn’t look pleasant now. The brown wood-work and rough dingy walls had lost their gilding. The sunshine was out of it, and what was more, the sunshine was out of Ellen’s heart too. She went to the window and opened it, but there was nothing to keep it open, it slid down again as soon as she let it go. Baffled and sad, she stood leaning her elbows on the window-sill, looking out on the grass-plat that lay before the door, and the little gate that opened on the lakes, and the smooth meadow and rich broken country beyond. It was a very fair and pleasant scene in the soft sunlight of the last of October, but the charm of it was gone for Ellen, it was dreary. She looked without caring to look, or knowing what she was looking at, she felt the tears rising to her eyes, and, sick of the window, turned away. Her eyes fell on her trunk, her next thought was of her desk inside of it, and suddenly her heart sprang. “I will write to mamma!” No sooner said than done. The trunk was quickly open, and hasty hands pulled out one thing after another till the desk was reached.

     “But what shall I do?” thought she, “There isn’t a sign of a table. Oh, what a place! I’ll shut my trunk and put it on that. But here are all these things to be put back first.”

     They were eagerly stowed away, and then kneeling by-the side of the trunk, with loving hands, Ellen opened her desk. A sheet of paper was drawn from her store, and properly placed before her, the pen was dipped in the ink, and at first with a hurried, and then with a trembling hand she wrote, “My dear Mama.” But Ellen’s heart had been swelling and swelling, with every letter of those three words, and scarcely was the last “a” finished, when the pen was dashed down, and flinging away from the desk, she threw herself on the floor in a passion of grief. It seemed as if she had her mother again in her arms, and was clinging with a death-grasp not to be parted from her. And then the feeling that she was parted! As much bitter sorrow as a little heart can know was in poor Ellen’s now. In her childish despair she wished she could die, and almost thought she should. After a time, however, though not a short time, she rose from the floor and went to her writing again, her heart a little eased by weeping, yet the tears kept coming all the time and she could not quite keep her paper from being blotted. The first sheet was spoiled before she was aware, she took another.

     The letter finished was carefully folded, enclosed, and directed, and then with an odd mixture of pleasure and sadness, Ellen lit one of her little wax matches, as she called them, and sealed it very nicely. She looked at it fondly a minute when all was done, thinking of the dear fingers that would hold and open it, her next movement was to sink her face in her hands, and pray most earnestly for a blessing upon her mother and help for herself -- poor Ellen felt she needed it. She was afraid of lingering lest tea should be ready, so, locking up her letter, she went downstairs.

     The tea was ready. Miss Fortune and Mr. Van Brunt were at the table, and so was the old lady, whom Ellen had not seen before that day. She quietly drew up her chair to its place.

     “Well,” said Miss Fortune, “I hope you feel better for your long stay upstairs.”

     “I do, ma’am,” said Ellen, “A great deal better.”

     “What have you been about?”

     “I have been writing, ma’am.”

     “Writing what?”

     “I have been writing to Mama.”

     Perhaps Miss Fortune heard the trembling of Ellen’s voice, or her sharp glance saw the lip quiver and eyelid droop. Something softened her. She spoke in a different tone, asked Ellen if her tea was good, took care she had plenty of the bread and butter, and excellent cheese, which was on the table, and lastly cut her a large piece of the pumpkin pie. Mr. Van Brunt too looked once or twice at Ellen’s face as if he thought all was not right there. He was not so sharp as Miss Fortune, but the swollen eyes and tear stains were not quite lost upon him. After tea, when Mr. Van Brunt was gone, and the tea things cleared away, Ellen had the pleasure of finding out the mystery of the brass kettle and the white maple bark. The kettle now stood in the chimney corner. Miss Fortune, seating herself before it, threw in all Ellen’s stockings except one pair, which she flung over to her, saying, “There, I don’t care if you keep that one.” Then, tucking up her sleeves to the elbows, she fished up pair after pair out of the kettle, and wringing them out hung them on chairs to dry. But, as Ellen had opined, they were no longer white, but of a fine slate color. She looked on in silence, too much vexed to ask questions.

     “Well, how do you like that?” said Miss Fortune at length, when she had got two or three chairs round the fire pretty well hung with a display of slate-colored cotton legs.

     “I don’t like it at all.” said Ellen.

     “Well I do, how many pair of white stockings would you leave to drive into the mud and let me wash out every week?”

     “You wash!” said Ellen in surprise, “I didn’t think your doing it.”

     “Who did you think was going to do it? There’s nothing in this house but goes through my hand, I can tell you, and so must you. I suppose you’ve lived all your life among people that thought a great deal of wetting their little finger, but I’am not one of ‘em, I guess you’ll find.”

     Ellen was convinced of that already.

     “Well, what are you thinking of?” said Miss Fortune presently.

     “I’m thinking of my nice white darning cotton,” said Ellen. “I might just as well not have had it.

     “Is it wound or in the skein?”

     “In the skein.”

     “Then just go right up and get it. I’ll warrant I’ll fix it so that you’ll have a use for it.”

     Ellen obeyed, but musing rather uncomfortably what else there was of hers that Miss Fortune could lay hands on. She seemed in imagination to see all her white things turning brown. She resolved she would keep her trunk well locked up, but what if her keys should be called for?

     She was dismissed to her room soon after the dyeing business was completed. It was rather a disagreeable surprise to find her bed still unmade, and she did not like the notion that the making of it in the future must depend entirely upon herself, Ellen had no fancy for such handiwork. She went to sleep in somewhat the same dissatisfied mood with which the day had begun, displeasure, at her coarse heavy coverlid and cotton sheets again taking its place among weightier matters, and dreamed of tying them together into a rope by which to let herself down out of the Window, but when she had got so far, Ellen’s sleep became sound, and the end of the dream was never known.

 

 

 

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